The Church, Authority, And Infallibility (Part 6): Conciliarism
By Jason Engwer and
Response by Scott Windsor
Listed as “Part 3” in a series on the Papacy from another source and from this source is labeled as part of a “three part series on Augustine and Roman Catholicism” as the objective reader will see, this presentation has nothing to do with St. Augustine, as we were led to believe and goes off on a tangent of Medieval conciliarism. It is not directly connected to the first two parts, rather it is a response to Dave Armstrong primarily dealing with the failed concept of “conciliarism” and ignoring the reality of papal authority - which was necessary to consent to the conciliarist experiment. Still, we were challenged to read all "three parts" from the response to us on St. Augustine and the Papacy (posted here - and actually began as a thread on St. Augustine and sola scriptura). The only reason I am responding to this “part” is to deflect criticism that not all the evidence Engwer presented was considered. So, without further ado we see that Mr. Engwer begins, again, naming a “Roman Catholic scholar” who holds a different view from Mr. Armstrong...
In an earlier response to Dave Armstrong, I cited a recent book by the Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Kelly, in which he presents a view of church history significantly different than Dave's.
It is not surprising that Kelly holds a “significantly different view” than Armstrong’s, Dave is not a revisionist liberal. I am not saying Joseph Kelly is a revisionist liberal (I am not familiar enough with his works to make such a judgment), however a quick search on Google shows that he’s quoted numerous times by non-Catholics with an anti-Catholic agenda. Now it could be that Kelly has been taken out of context and has not gone contrary to Catholicism, but without further research on Kelly himself, I cannot say for now. Suffice it to say, when a source is frequently cited by anti-Catholics, it is suspect.
What I want to do here is quote some of Kelly's comments on an issue related to medieval Western ecclesiology. People often think of post-patristic and Western ecclesiology as more unified and consistent than it actually was. Even as late as the post-patristic medieval era, and even in the West, such a foundational element of Roman Catholic ecclesiology as the papacy was widely questioned and sometimes rejected.
Codes of law always allow for all sorts of possibilities, no matter how seemingly minute or absurd or unlikely. In the early thirteenth century canon lawyers had speculated about what to do if a pope fell into heresy. Slowly but surely some canon lawyers constructed the view that the pope does not have absolute rule over the church because the power of the church is greater than his. They speculated that the ultimate power in the church resided in the ecumenical council. These few sentences summarize decades of very complex developments. The superiority of the council to the pope is the conciliar theory; its practical application is conciliarism. (The Ecumenical Councils Of The Catholic Church [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009], p. 107)
Well, the description is close - but not 100% accurate. What seems to be happening here is the lack of realization that both the authority of the Pope AND that of an ecumenical council may be infallible! Yes, some councils have “judged” previous popes, no doubt, but an ecumenical council also must be ratified by the sitting pope. For example, the Council of Chalcedon, 451, the council was ratified by Pope Leo I, and the decrees it contained, EXCEPT decree 28 - which was rejected. Now the experiment with conciliarism didn’t take place for nearly a millenia after Chalcedon, the precedence of papal authority is already in place AND without papal consent, the experiment would never have gotten off the ground.
Conciliarism sometimes had popular support in the West:
Pushed by the rulers and the nobility [during the Great Schism], in 1409 the cardinals of both popes largely deserted them and met in the Italian city of Pisa, where they proclaimed the need to go above the popes' heads to a general council, citing the consequences of the schism for this clear violation of canon law. With some major exceptions (Germany, the Spanish kingdoms) Catholic Europe supported them....
Many in Catholic Europe, both clerical and lay, believed that the papacy would never reform itself and that only a council could truly reform the church....
The belief in the curative powers of a reforming council never died out until the Reformation....
Conciliarist traditions ran strong in northern Europe. (pp. 107, 121, 123)
The problem Mr. Engwer would have with this presentation of “conciliarism” would be that it assumes that papal authority was already quite established and “conciliarism” is a movement which was “taking over...” However, it was still a movement which required papal approval to take root - which it got for a while - and the system was eventually brought back to the original structure and conciliarism was condemned.
There were multiple medieval councils that claimed authority over the papacy, which is a contradiction of modern Catholic ecclesiology. Kelly writes:
This [the teaching of the ecumenical Council of Constance] is conciliarism at its most basic. The council asserts that it meets under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that it represents the Catholic Church and thus has the supreme authority in the church, and that its authority derives from Christ and even the popes must obey the council....
And again, apparently overlooking the necessity of the sitting pope to validate the ecumenical council! What may sound good in these out-of-context quotes from Kelly, isn’t the reality of the Catholic Church and though obliged - was not without papal authority.
But no scholar doubts that Constance meant what it said because in 1417, before choosing a new pope, the council passed a second monumental decree, Frequens, which asserted that the new pope must call another council five years after Constance closes, then another one seven years after that, and then a council every ten years so that there would be, in effect, a council in every pontificate. The leaders of Constance truly wished to change the governmental structure of the church....
Many Catholics, including rulers and bishops, favored conciliarism, and so Martin [Pope Martin V] obliged and obeyed the decree. (pp. 111, 114)
Note, even in the citation above - Pope Martin V obliged and obeyed the decree - by obliging he has given his papal consent.
He also discusses the conciliarism of the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome (pp. 114-119). He notes that the cardinal chosen by Pope Eugenius IV to open the council and preside over it was himself a conciliarist (p. 114). Even as late as the Council of Trent, the "specter of conciliarism" was still on the minds of the Catholic leadership, and a revival of conciliarism at Trent was feared when Pope Pius IV seemed to be nearing death (p. 145).
The problem, again, which Mr. Engwer has is the fact that the pope consented to the alleged conciliarism of the day. “Fearing” the revival of conciliarism is a polemical view, at best. The only way any form of conciliarism has “worked” was under the blessing of the sitting pope.
What's the significance of medieval conciliarism? For one thing, it undermines the popular Catholic appeal to pre-Reformation unity. The sort of diversity of belief I've outlined in this post and in this series is much different than the picture that's often painted by modern Catholics.
Modern Catholics need not worry about this papal approved conciliarism for again, since it was approved by the papacy - it is not a system superior to the papacy. This conciliarist experiment was officially denounced at the 5th Lateran Council, 1512-1517. As for the allegation of a diversity of belief, on matters of defined dogma (Articles of Faith) there was no diversity of belief among faithful Catholics - and the same remains true to this day.
Secondly, the conciliar and papal support for conciliarism is problematic for Catholic authority claims.
Mr. Engwer asserts that this is problematic - but does not support WHY it is problematic! All we’re left here is an unsubstantiated assertion - and the objective/rational reader must reject it as such. It seems Engwer wants to deflect the FACT that conciliarism itself was ratified by papal authority, but an unsubstantiated assertion utterly fails to even come close to demonstrating any problem for Catholic authority claims.
Third, the widespread doubt about something as simple and foundational as papal authority, as late as the post-patristic medieval era and even in the West, illustrates a point I made when responding to Dave Armstrong earlier this year. Scripture has better evidence supporting it, and has been more widely accepted, than Roman Catholic ecclesiology.
Doubt? Who said anything about doubting papal authority through conciliarism? Conciliarism was tried, it failed and was condemned. The side which is problematic here is Mr. Engwer’s adherence to sola scriptura. He didn’t mention that by name, but implies it through his reference of “Scripture has better evidence supporting it.” Again, we’re left with an unsubstantiated assertion in this essay - and this was Mr. Engwer’s closing statement! The problems with sola scriptura are numerous - namely it is not a scriptural teaching itself, and secondly IF sola scriptura was a valid option - then why do we have more than ONE Protestant church professing adherence to sola scriptura? There are a multitude of definitions of sola scriptura itself - and if said sola scripturists were consistent at all, they would flatly condemn every other Protestant cult which does not adhere to THEIR particular view. Granted, some Protestants do condemn other Protestants - but overall, you don’t get flat out condemnation between groups of Baptists, Southern Baptists, Methodists, United Methodists, High Anglicans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans (of a variety of synods), and then you have non-denominational fundamentalists, just to name a few Protestant cults - some of which have quite diverse salvific views - and all claim to be sola scriptura based.
OK, now I’ve completed “Part 3” of this series on the Papacy. So let us take it back to the original challenge which initiated this response. We were told (linked here) by Matthew Schultz:
You read all 6,000 words of the papacy entries and still do not know what Jason Engwer's arguments are or understand the scholarship he cited? The articles were easy to understand and explicit in their positions (e.g. "[Roman Catholic patristic scholar] Eno explains that Augustine didn't believe in a papacy, but instead placed ecumenical councils above the bishop of Rome: [quotation follows]"). I don't know what could be said in response to you other than to suggest development of reading comprehension skills.
After going through “all (Engwer’s) 6000 words of the papacy entries” (which is actually 4814 words, but who’s counting?) and demonstrating either their lack of applicability, contextuality, and outright validity, perhaps it is Mr. Schultz’ reading comprehension skills which suggest some needed improvement? If he had objectively read and comprehended what Mr. Engwer presented, he would have seen the fallacies and would not be advising others read the out of context and at times even incongruity of this “three part” series. It would seem that Mr. Schultz’ agreement with Mr. Engwer has clouded his objectivity - or perhaps Mr. Schultz has not even fully read all 4814 words from Mr. Engwer for himself? As for the "scholarship" Engwer cited, most, if not all, is suspect.
I believe the objective reader will have to side with me on this one. Though Mr. Engwer has used a lot of words - he has not proven his case, nor even been able to raise reasonable doubt for the Catholic claims of the papacy. Bringing this back to St. Augustine on the Papacy, I refer you to the earlier entry I made on this subject:
I remain your servant in Christ,